How to Capture Bold and Beautiful Photographs Using Shadows


“Ninja Cat” by Robert Couse-Baker

When it comes to capturing a captivating photograph, many people may believe that it’s all about light. While illumination is important, darkness is an equally compelling component. Showcasing the shapes and darkness shadows cast is a surprising way to enhance a composition. Here, we explain the ways in which you can master the art of shadow photography.

“Careless Whispers” by Ovidiu Satmari

First of all, what are shadows?

A shadow is the contour created when an object or person blocks rays of light from reaching a surface. The shape of a shadow changes based on its relationship with its light source. The distance, angle, and size of the source work together to determine the intensity, form, and scale of the shadow.

“Ice” by Aya Okawa

While this may seem to be a fairly obvious explanation, a shadow’s role in photography is often fuzzy. Silhouettes and reflections can be mistaken for shadows. Like shadows, silhouettes are formed by restricted light. Similarly, reflections materialize as projections on a surface formed by an object. Though conceptually similar and equally effective, both phenomena are independent subjects in the field of photography.

“Lines” by Rui Veiga

“Light” by Rui Veiga

How can shadows enhance a photograph?

Shadows can enrich a photograph in numerous ways. In some cases, photographers utilize them as subtle, accentuating details. They are not the focal point of the piece. Instead, they strengthen the photo by adding a sense of balance, contrast, or dimensionality to the composition.

“Earth Aerial” by Aya Okawa

Similarly, photographers also often deliberately experiment with the effect of shadows on subject matter. By casting shadows directly onto their subjects, they are able to alter their appearance and experiment with texture, pattern, and even emotion. In such cases, the shadow’s role is obvious, deliberate, and of significant visual importance.

“Lazy Day” by Wild Orchid Photography

Finally, some photographers employ shadows as the focal points of their pieces. In addition to exhibiting the photographer’s avant-garde approach to the craft, this unique use of shadows prompts viewers to see the often overlooked visuals in a new light. Ultimately, as subjects, they take on a life of their own.

“Shadows” by Tomi Lattu

How can I expertly capture shadows?

To master the art of shadow photography, there are a few important steps to take.

  1. Decide how you aim to use the shadows. Do you want them to subtly accentuate a subject? Or do you wish to highlight their effect on it? Perhaps you want to create a composition entirely focused on them. The choice is yours!
  2. Consider the positioning and quality of your light source.If it’s far away and faint, the shadow will be softer and less defined than a closer, stronger illumination. Similarly, the direction of the light directly affects the shape of a shadow. If an object is lit from the front (or front-lit), the shadow will be difficult to capture on camera, as it will fall behind the subject. Contrarily, if the object is backlit, it will cast a shadow toward the front of the composition. This technique can also be tricky, however, as the light can cast a lens flare. Fortunately, this can be remedied with certain tools, including a lens hood (see a selection on Amazon). The best approach, then, is to position or capture the light at an angle so that the shadow forms to the object’s left or right. In this case, the object is side lit.
  3. Pay attention to placement.Be aware of both the object that will create the shadow andthe surface it will be cast upon. Like the positioning of the light source, this can drastically alter your composition. The key is to experiment.
  4. Be creative—especially with color! Black and white photos can emphasize the contrast of shadows, while color images capture the unique tones that comprise a shadow. Believe it or not, they’re not always a monotonous black or grey.

“Durdle Dor, cloudy morning. Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.” by Kris B Photography

We hope these photography tips help you capture light in photos to create beautiful shadow art!

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